Thursday, 9 September 2010

First day in Hong Kong

Some quick thoughts before sleep overtakes me:

- Hong Kong smells like Brazil. more on this later
- the views from both my apartment and my company's offices are spectacular. Overall, the building in which IMC's Hong Kong offices are in looks like it came out of some spy movie.
- I planned this morning to walk in what I thought was the general direction of the office until I attracted the attention of a cabbie. By the time I found an available cab, he pointed me to the office a block away.
- Based on one day, reports of Hong Kong's crowdedness are greatly exaggerated. Many people and things are vertical, yes, but I was envisioning packed packed sidewalks, and I haven't seen that yet. (disclaimer: sample size = 1 day.)
- the pedestrian escalators are quite interesting
- I went to McDonalds for dinner. Double cheeseburgers here are almost indistinguishable from their American counterparts.
- I still need to get used to the fact that the Hong Kong dollar is worth about 10-12 cents. Most other foreign currencies I have dealt with (euro, pound, Brazilian real) have much closer value to the dollar. But here a double cheeseburger is listed as $30, which really is just $3-4 US.
- Smoked chicken with noodles for lunch. If you had ordered pulled chicken nachos in an American restaurant, the chicken on my order would not have been out of place.
- The streets smell richly of different generically-Asian spices, among other things. The only one I isolated today was ginger.

Pics and more narrative style comments later. I'm going to bed.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Going to Hong Kong (eventually)

I am currently waiting in the United Red Carpet Club in the C Concourse of Chicago's lovely O'Hare International Airport, hoping that soon I may board a flight to Hong Kong. My flight was scheduled to depart at 12:40, but now the estimate is 6pm.

I will be working for a month in the Hong Kong office of my employer, IMC financial markets. I have fielded multiple requests to document my trip, and I plan to do so here. Fortunately this blog is named broadly enough to cover any trip to anywhere. If I ever happen to take a trip to Mars, rest assured it will be logged in this space.

Now I will return to eating chilled cheese cubes and yogurt-covered raisins, waiting for this flight.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Cargo bikes

I came across a post about the rising use of 'cargo bikes' across the Pacific Northwest, specifically Portland. The variety of bikes pictured is quite interesting. While in Amsterdam last year, I saw many similar models on the streets.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

In which much smoke is produced indoors, a heating device is used improperly, and labels are ambiguous

On Saturday, I bought a baguette at the store. In a moment of inattention, I actually thought it was an unbaked baguette dough, ready to be popped into the oven and baked. Upon opening the package, I realized it was actually a complete baked baguette, ready to be eaten. Still, on the label there was a little glyph I perceived to indicate 'microwave' and the words '6-8 minuten'.

Now, we have a funky combo oven/other heating options appliance. I'm sure it's super useful for urban European living, which usually puts a premium on space. Here in our apartments, however, we could easily dedicate half of our living room to an elaborate shrine for this combined cooking appliance (CCA) without negatively affecting the livability of the place.

My roommate and I have made liberal use of the CCA for our delicious one-euro frozen pizzas, albeit only on one setting, which we empirically determined to most closely match a standard American definition of oven. That setting has this symbol on it:

In attempting to find a microwave setting, I fiddled around with the dial and found one setting that roomie and I thought made suitably microwave-like lights and noises. The LED display let me set a time. I split the difference indicated on the package and put it on for 7 minutes. I then went to take a quick shower and roomie went to his computer in the other room. About halfway through the shower, I noted that the bread was smelling quite good.

Less than a minute later, I heard the smoke alarm go off and quickly ended the shower to see what was up. I opened the bathroom door and emerged into a completely smoke-filled room.

Three days later, our room still smells like burnt material. Amoong other options, our CCA apparently has the equivalent of 'oven', 'microwave', and 'two GIANT lasers and the sun,' as indicated by this helpful symbol:

When we opened the CCA to inspect the damage, this is what we found:

The baguette was completely black through and through. Maybe I'm just ignorant about cooking, but I'm reasonably sure that neither microwaves nor ovens go from lickable-without-repercussions to fill-the-room-with-smoke in seven minutes.

Overall, it was a learning experience: don't experiment with hot things, don't trust labels, and if I were ever to make a CCA, think very hard before adding a giant laser option, and if you absolutely must, label it unambiguously.

Or, maybe the real lesson is:don't put baguettes in the oven ;)

Sunday, 2 August 2009

America vs Amsterdam

So, the trader-trainees finished their training last week and headed back to America today. There was a farewell-trainees party at a faux beach bar in the middle of town. It was a nice place, but the beach was mostly an excuse for oversized outdoor furniture, boardwalks, and bars. Still, the food was good and the drink was plentiful.

Anyway, keeping in mind that the traders get to go back to America today, and we get to experience another week of wonderful Amsterdam, I thought I'd put up a couple things I miss, or will miss, about each place.

Things I will miss about Amsterdam:

Public, outdoor urinals
I'll try to get a picture of these. Really, they're a great idea, I promise. Especially since most public restrooms aren't free. Maybe in the US women's rights groups would sue for discrimination (not making that up... it's actually happened concerning sports stadiums). I just hope they don't empty straight into the canals, like the houseboats do.

Bicycles as a primary, casual means of transport and commuting
As I've mentioned, many many people here cycle to work, in suits and stuffy corporatewear. Its different than in the US, though; the bikes are primarily made for comfort and easy transportation. They are heavy, and many come standard with lights and racks for transporting things. You'll also see weird bikes with large wagon-sized buckets in the front for children, and children's seats up between the handlebars. The typical Dutch bike is a Clydesdale, while typical American commuting bikes are more like thoroughbreds. My bike is very similar to the blue bike in the picture, while the bikes that could carry a sandbox are in the foreground.

FEBO... in principle, mostly
FEBO is a fastfood chain seen all over the place in downtown Amsterdam which primarily consists of a large wall of food in heatlamps behind coin-op doors. You put coins in, and the door unlocks. While that may seem yucky, the food is really hot and usually hasn't been sitting there that long... and if you're walking around downtown Amsterdam looking for munchies late at night, chances are you aren't going to taste the difference anyway. Also, the Burger Kings here can take forever if you're unlucky, but you're pretty much guaranteed to be in and out of a FEBO in under 30 seconds. Some people don't like Dutch-style burgers, which taste a bit meatloaf-y to Americans, but I don't mind them.

Dutch fries with their frite-sauce
Dutch French fries are made good, hot, and tasty, and they're served on the street and in nice restaurants. What's more, they come with a tangy mayonnaise-like sauce that actually tastes good, unlike the bland mayo of the states. Win-win-win.

Not the smell of weed
There was a novelty factor of just getting a giant whiff of weed hitting you and being like "haha! weed is legal here!" in the middle of an otherwise pleasant walk around downtown, but now it's just annoying. And its not just downtown, either. You can be walking along calm canals and just get punched in the face with the smell.

Being able to order "beer" and be satisfied with whatever comes back
Heineken is definitely not my favorite of beers. In fact, I probably prefer Miller Lite over Heineken. Regardless, when I'm in Europe I can simply order "beer" and have no qualms or worries about the quality of the product I will be served. Also, it helps that I just have to know one word, and beer is pretty much understood in any language.

Having justification to feel slightly out of my element
85% of Dutch people speak English, so it really isn't any problem to approach any proprietor and start speaking in English. That being said, much of Dutch is unintelligible in writing, and there are cultural differences as well: I still wouldn't feel confident navigating the European train system. It was like this the first couple days in Chicago too; knowing which train to take, how much to pay for the train, where to find a meal, etc. Here I can just stammer and speak English slowly, and people will understand that I'm not a dullard and just a clueless tourist. In Chicago I won't have any such recourse and will have to just look silly til I get the hang of things.

Things I miss about the US:

Trashbags and trashcans all over
Europe is not big on trash; their trash bags and trash cans are smaller. In America, we like everything big, including our trash cans. I'm not sure if they're bigger because we throw more things away, or we throw more things away because its so easy and convenient. Either way, the end result is that for Americans in Europe, throwing things away is NOT easy. Whereas in American public places, trash cans are all over the place, they are few and far between in Amsterdam. Being the conscientious non-litterer that I am, this results in me carrying a FEBO wrapper, an empty water bottle, and napkin most of the way home before I cross paths with a trash can.

Not paying for restrooms
In Europe, many public restrooms are 50 Euro cents or more for access. This would never fly in America. And they're not any cleaner for being not free.

Decently sized drinking glasses and not paying for water at restaurants
American people have healthy thirst levels. Apparently, Europeans are camels in disguise, accustomed to going long periods without drinking much water, and conditioned to only drink water in half-ounce increments. Truth be told, for our 2 person apartment, we have 13 sets of 6 drinking receptacles... margarita glasses, whiskey glasses, janever glasses, drinking glasses, 4-5 different types of wine glasses, etc., but not a one is actually a decent water size. (For those of you who were counting... yes, our apartment actually has 78 glasses for two people)

Also, if you order water at a restaurant, much of the time you'll get a bottled-water 1-liter bottle made of glass. For all the eco-aware posturing of Europe, transporting individual liters of water in ridiculously thick glass bottles seems a tad wasteful. And they probably charge 13 euros for the water too.

Residential air conditioning
Truth be told, residences in the Netherlands probably need air conditioning maybe 2-3 days out of the year. However, we happened to arrive on exactly those two days, and trying to sleep off jetlag when its really hot doesn't help. In any case, sleeping in A/C is something to which I'm looking forward upon my arrival to the states.

Not having a weird, semi-euro accent
As long as I can remember, I've tended to mirror and reflect the speech patterns of those with whom I'm conversing. In this trip to Amsterdam I've understandably been conversing with many non-English speakers. Because of this, I've adopted an odd speech cadence where I pause in the middle of my sentences and then finish it quickly, mirroring the non-English speakers who pause to find the right words for the rest of the sentence. Also, I'll end many sentences with an slight elevation of tone, mirroring the English of those who are implicitly seeking validation for the correctness of their sentences.

Stores with friendly closing hours
Shops here close early. Almost everything is closed before we leave work, and usually not open yet by the time we leave. Conveniently, the grocery store is open til 8pm or so. Except on Sundays, when it doesn't open at all.

So, that's a short version of my observations of day-to-day differences between Amsterdam and the US. As much as I like it, I'm excited to get back to the States soon.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Belgium, Cooking, Oudekerk, and more photos I found.

Going through the pictures on my camera, I realized I had totally forgotten I had taken a (very few) pictures during the bike tour and ensuing whiskey-tasting. They can be seen here. One of those is a historical drawbridge, and another a dome of some historical import that escapes me.

Also, I put up some pictures of my attempts at cooking stir fry. The first time, I could only find pre-cooked rice. It was yellow and flavorful enough, but lacked real... rice-ness. The second time, I started the chicken, added veggies, stirred in a coconut curry sauce, added some water, and let some of it simmer off for awhile. Meanwhile, I made jasmine rice, which turned out decently, if a tad smushy. For most of the simmer time I was afraid I had burnt the sauce, as the concoction started smelling slightly acrid. I would've taken it off, but I had added too much water initially and needed it to simmer off. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded, and the meal turned out deliciously. Now, here's to hoping coconut curry sauces are widely available in the US...

Also, out of pure laziness, I posted the entirety of my pictures from Belgium, as well as pictures I took at the Oudekerk this past weekend. My roommate and I visited the Oudekerk and took a tower tour as well. The church is one of the oldest in Amsterdam, very bare inside, and the floor is composed entirely of tombstones, some of which featured large seals in bas-relief. Not exactly the most accessibility-minded flooring choice :)

Disclaimer: I'm guessing most of these pictures are largely boring, since they have few people and mostly just things and places.

Pictures of Belgium

Pictures of the Oudekerk

Pictures from the bike tour

Pictures of cooking attempts

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Company outings

So, since I've been so lazy about posting to this blog, I'm about two weeks behind on noteworthy events to share. So, I'll start with somewhere around two weeks ago.

In order to blend in seamlessly with the local Amsterdam-ians, my company issued all trainees bicycles, a standard mode of transportation here for all demographics. We're working at the World Trade Center in Amsterdam, and every day we see countless businesspeople cycling to work in corporatewear. Incidentally, bikes tend to be somewhat expensive, and therefore have a tendency to be stolen by junkies to be resold. And that is what happened to my bike two days after I was issued it.

On our first Saturday here, our company arranged a social event which involved a bike tour of Amsterdam, followed by a whiskey-tasting session at a small local whiskey bar.

It is clear from observing traffic patterns in Amsterdam that the Dutch expect you to know what you're doing. Between the commonplace sidewalk and road, there is almost always a bicycle lane. In addition, many roads also have tram tracks in the middle. In addition, Vespas and other scooter-like devices can travel either on bicycle lanes or the road, and cars can travel on the tram tracks when the trams aren't. Overall, it is much more complex than most American roads I've encountered, and cycling along is fun, although it can be unclear when you should cross the road.

We saw some interesting sights along the bike tour, including the Rijksmuseum, the Anne Frank House, and the red light district, among other things.

After the bike tour we went to the whiskey bar, which serves more than 1300 different whiskies. We tried six different whiskies, among them Glenfiddich, Balvenie, Isla, and ending with a LaPhroaig 40% and a LaPhroaig 58%. Along the way, the proprietor and owner explained the history of whiskey, how it was made, and what determined the flavor. He burnt a piece of peat for us and told us stories of him explaining to Scottish customs officials that the 13 bottles of whiskey he was carrying back with him were for personal use only. He passed around a sample of 77% newspirit, which is the whiskey straight after the distillation process and before it ages in the casks--awful stuff. Overall, it was great to learn more about whiskey and get a lesson in the variations that exist between the different brands.

After the bike tour and whiskey-tasting, we went to a nearby sports-cafe and, this being July 4, ordered American-inspired food. Burger for me, ribs for the guy next to me, and Buds for some. After that was a pub, after which was a club, and in between biking between those places, I locked it up in Rembrandtplein, from whence it was stolen and very decidely not-where-I-left-it when I got back. This resulted in me running quite a bit the next week, sometimes to keep up with guys on bikes, other times to compensate for waking up a little too late.

Fast-forward two weeks to last saturday: we had another company-sponsored social event: bicycle boats on the canals of Amsterdam. We piled into eight four-person boats and proceeded to clumsily avoid speeding tourist boats by paddling furiously and bouncing off the canal walls. Mix in some blind canal intersections, lousy steering capabilities, anemic acceleration, and a light rain, and you've got a fun time :).

We all made it out alive, although one boat took a wrong turn and took quite a bit longer than the rest. We stopped for a bite to eat at a local place famous for its croquets, off of Rembrandtplein. It was called something like... Van Dobbels. Good food.

After the boat-biking, we went 'lazergamen' or something like that, which translated into laser-tag in the murky basement of a Brazilian bar. Fun stuff, and I got first place.

After lazergamen, some of us went with one of the Amsterdam traders to a place which served traditional Dutch liqeurs and brandy wines. I tried a blackberry brandy wine, which was very very, VERY sweet. I liked the whiskey better.

This morning around noon, my roommate and I hosted a pancake and breakfast sandwich brunch for anyone in the flats who wanted to stop by. We had a turnout of maybe 10-12 people. I manned the pancakes, which mostly turned out like pancakes, although a few ended up more suspiciously tortilla- or crepe-like. Very enjoyable, the food was great, and we now have a good supply of eggs leftoever for breakfast next week.

In the weekend intervening, I went to Belgium, but this post is too long already.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009


My last post was right after I returned from my semester abroad in London in Fall 2007. Since I last wrote, I completed the last three semesters of college, found a job, and moved to Chicago. Last Monday I started work as a software developer for the trading firm IMC-Chicago and the first thing they did was send me to Amsterdam for five weeks of training! Rough life, I know :)

The direct Chicago-Schipol flight was uneventful, and I think it is the first time I've actually been in a 747. Amsterdam is 7 hours ahead of US Central Time and we got out of the airport around 7am. We were met at the airport and taken to our executive apartments, which are very European, very accommodating, and huge. The shower here is about as large as my entire bathroom in Chicago, and the kitchen here is about the size of my living room. It's almost a pain walking around the place because everything is so spread out.

See pictures of the apartment here

Some of our first tasks were getting Dutch pre-pay phones and groceries. Despite the odd layout of the store, the latter was not very difficult as most Dutch nouns seem to consist of a common root as their English counterparts and a liberal sprinkling of -ij, -met, -uik, etc. The frozen pizza was cheap at ~1.5 Euros, but not bad nonetheless. We noticed that almost all the food in the store was prepackaged; there were fewer bulk options for vegetables and the like. I picked up some spinach, field greens mix, potato salad-ish stuff, some Heineken, sliced pineapple, and frozen pizzas.

I'm here with two other new hire recent college graduates and a couple other new hires not straight out of college. The former group and I were trying to stay awake through the whole day and get onto Amsterdam time, but then I dozed off on the couch and when I woke up they were gone. Although they were all sleeping, I had no idea where they went, and the paranoid part of my brain was telling me they were already partying at some bar.

The days are very long here; when I woke up after dozing on the couch I estimated it to be about six or seven, but it was actually nine-thirty. Similarly, the sun rose at about 4, and my roommate and I were both awake. Suffice to say, we aren't on Amsterdam time yet.

Anyway, I plan to post about some of the sights and events I encounter in my five weeks here, so we'll see how well that goes.


Monday, 24 December 2007

St. Peter's Basilica and Square

I loved St. Peter's Basilica.  But pictures are worth 1000 words, so here's the best of my pics from St. Peter's.

And here's a video I recorded while standing on one of the foci of the ellipse of St. Peter's Square.  All the chairs were set up for the Wednesday audience (we were there on Tuesday), and John and I had to hop the fence to get to the focus, at which point all the columns on one side of the square line up.

Friday, 21 December 2007

Home! In South Dakota!

After traversing Europe, I am back in the wide open spaces of South Dakota!  After a hectic finals week combined with moving out of our flats in London, the trip across the Atlantic was long. 

Many of us did not sleep the night before we left, having to finish packing, clean our flats, eat leftover food, and be ready to leave by 5:45am.  After spending about 5 hours in Heathrow, our flight left at noon-ish and followed the sun on a 9-hour flight, thus arriving in Chicago at 3pm local time, exhausted.

I picked up a connection to Sioux Falls without much hassle.  My baggage, however, decided to hook up with a hot pink tote from Atlanta and spent the night in O'Hare, only to stumble through the door this morning, shamefacedly averting my gaze.  I am happy to report, however, that after a preliminary physical, it didn't appear to have contracted any diseases or suffered any physical damage from its wild night away from home.

All is well in South Dakota and I'm having a good time relaxing and spending time with the siblings.  I will be catching up on posting pictures and blogging about some of my trips during the second half of the semester.  Here's hoping a happy holidays to all!